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An American In Paris Wows at the Hollywood Pantages

Robin Menken: The national tour of Broadway’s “An American in Paris”, which opened at the Hollywood Pantages on Thursday, March 23, turns the 1951 Vincent Minelli/Gene Kelly directed Oscar winning film into a sprightly Broadway musical.
An American In Paris

An American in Paris Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The national tour of Broadway’s “An American in Paris”, which opened at the Hollywood Pantages on Thursday, March 23, turns the 1951 Vincent Minelli/Gene Kelly directed Oscar winning film into a sprightly Broadway musical. Inspired by John Alton's filmic ballet sequence (which anchors the film) Christopher Wheelson's choreography mixes ballet, modern and Broadway jazz steps to tell its story.

Director-choreographer Wheeldon removed some of the film's signature songs, reassigned which characters sang them and dressed up the story with extra Gershwin orchestral works and songs to create a full scale musical.

The show replaces songs "Nice Work if You Can Get It", "Embraceable You", “Tra-la-la” (This Time It's Really Love), "By Strauss",” "Our Love Is Here to Stay " (not to mention the numerous Gershwin songs played as background music in the film) with other Gershwin tunes: 'The Man I Love" (from Gershwin's 1927 anti-war satire Strike Up the Band), "Liza" (introduced by Ruby Keeler in Florenz Ziegfeld's musical Show Girl) “For You, For Me, For Evermore” (first performed by Dick Haymes in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim) and iconic songs long associated with Fred Astaire- "I've Got Beginner's Luck", “Shall We Dance?", “Who Cares?” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me".

An American In Paris

Garen Scribner and Sara Esty

Craig Lucas’s book rejects the setting of the film, pushing the dates back to the end of the War and Germany's occupation of Paris.

The opening ten minutes are a bravura and poetic weave of modern staging ideas.

The show opens on a grim wartime Paris. Clever projections on architectural flats turn the city into a Black and White movie. The cast, dressed in black, white and grey, weaves through depressed Paris streets as projected buildings are briskly outlined in before our eyes. This dazzling projected animation is on view throughout the show, illustrating before our eyes, the sketchbook of hero, American painter Jerry Mulligan.

Only the leads wear color in their costumes Lise (Lise Dassin) the hopeful dancer with a day job at the Galleries Lafayette and Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), the GI who missed his train to become a painter in Paris.

The opening number morphs to a scene warmed by the colors of dawn over Paris, beginning to shake off the Occupation.

At one point projected Nazi flags draping the back of the stage "drop", an enormous white cloth is pulled downstage to reveal the French flag.

In another coup de théâtre, G.I. Jerry stands before a Black and white projected Arc De Triomphe, as a V-formation of Allied planes fly overhead towards us.

An American In Paris

Jerry soon falls in with the expat composer Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) and the fusty, light in his loafers, socialite Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), who's developing his secret Night Club act with Adam's music and coaching.

Bob Crowley's set design woven by designs by projection designer 59 Productions wrap the show in ever-moving flats coated with fluid digital projections (using a system that maps the projections in 3D), stage hands, and occasionally cast members, run the flats across stage to make their moving marks.

(I first saw this breathtaking system at work in the wonderful production of "Motown.")

The production team includes Tony-winning Bob Crowley (set and costume design), 59 Productions (projection design), Natasha Katz (lighting design) and Jon Weston (sound design).

In the pit, the charismatic David Andrews Rogers lead his orchestra in joyful brisk celebration of Gershwin's timeless music, enlivened by a strong horn section.

Taking some liberties with fashion styles, Crowley's costumes run the gamut from drab war-time, to Dior's New Look, and even some mini-version of Left Bank black-clad beat apparel.

Garen Scribner and Sara Esty reprise their (alternate) leading roles on Broadway as the star-crossed lovers Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin. Their characters, as written are a bit thin, but their dance chemistry makes up for this flaw in Lucas’s book.

Both former soloists with the San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet, they do the show proud.

 Emily Ferranti and Garen Scribner

Emily Ferranti and Garen Scribner

Scribner's voice is occasionally thin, but he's a strong dancer, with a beautiful extension, and athletic jetes. He is a careful partner is some rather overblown lifts (and that concern translates into his character) and his first act cartwheels and second-act aeriel turning-leaps are glorious. Both Scribner and Wheeldon avoid homaging Kelly, although some of his signature bent arm and leg crouching pivots are there in all their glory.

While no male dancer since Gene Kelly has ever given us the sexy, grounded swiveling hips and masculine thighs that made Kelly riveting to watch, Scribner is a strong male lead.

Scribner is brash and energetic in "I've Got Beginner's Luck", wooing the reluctant Lise (who he dubs Liza). Once she accepts his nickname, she's hooked.

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Lise Dassin is winsome and fragile as the dancer who inspires love in all three of the Musketeers. An inspired dancer with feet that seem to have extra articulations, she is a dream to watch and a charming singer; her big number "The Man I Love" is a delight.

Etai Benson (Wicked) plays the expat composer and narrator Adam Hochberg. Craig Lucas book has him say, "I'm no Oscar Levant." Adam moons over Lise along with his two pals, but even he realizes he doesn't have a chance with her.

An American In Paris

Nick Spangler and the An American in Paris Touring Company.

Nick Spangler (The Book of Mormon, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella) is a wonderful Henri Baurel. With the best male voice in the show, and a gift for comedy, the closeted gay socialite and secret Resistance hero is Jerry's rival for Lise's affection, until he settles down as Milo's possible shopping buddy and husband of convenience. Heiress Milo would make a good substitute for his proposed lavender marriage to Lise.

As happens when period pieces have to incorporate political correctness to keep up with changing times, their are jokes about homosexuality that seem anachronistic if well meaning, and Etai Benson's been given some shtick that seems a bit out of time.

Emily Ferranti (Wicked, Dreamgirls) plays the pushy American heiress Milo Davenport who promotes and keeps Jerry until he falls for Lise. Davenport plays a more pivotal role in the new book, offering to underwrite their new season she manipulates a famous Ballet company to give jobs to Jerry, Adam and Lise.

Given the iconic Fred Astaire song “Shall We Dance”, Ferranti holds her own as the first act draws to a close.

Gayton Scott (Gypsy, The Women) was hilarious throughout as Madame Baurel, employing a whooping voice that would have made Edna May Oliver proud.

Don Noble makes an impression as the "conservative" Monsieur Baurel, a man whose family has a dangerous secret to protect.

Kyle Vaughn, a strong character dancer in the brief moments he's given, plays the Russian ballet master Mr. Z (though his Russian accent is a bit much.)

Christopher Wheelson's choreography paid passing homage to Fosse (His sharp feet swiveling heels with toes aloft) and, most importantly in the wonderful second act number "Fidgety Feet" with Gerry and company dancing on and with chairs.

Wheelson's group numbers, especially in the first act make strong stage pictures, though in the number ’S Wonderful”, in which Jerry, Adam and Henri each sing of their vision of muse Lise, the three make dance styles seem to pull the stage picture apart.

An American In Paris

First act finale "Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” is dressed with Modern art concepts and the second act Entr’acte is a beautifully dressed back, white and red Harlinquinade.

In the endearing “For You, For Me, For Evermore”, Crowley spilts the stage into the two pairs of lovers as the secret romance of Lise and Jerry begins to destroy the established romances of Lise and Henri, and Jerry and Milo.

Milo and Adam have another emotional high point in the following number “But Not For Me"

“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in which Henri's secret life is as entertainer is revealed starts with some clumsily staged bits about a clumsy performer, but then morphs into a full -scale glitzy Deco Rockettes-inspired Radio City Music number. Not my style, but a show stopper.

I was less enthusiastic with the “An American in Paris” ballet, missing the plot arcs visible in the filmed ballet, though some sharp angular moves, that date all the way back to Denishawn's faux Orientalism packed a witty punch.

The "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" number made for a triumphant closer for the three male leads.

A large powerful ballet corps (19 touring and local dancers) is wonderful without, peppering the show with recognizable character moments, comedy timing, uniformly sharp moves and pleasing voices.

Premiering at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the production opened to critical acclaim at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April 2015 and closed in October, 2016 after playing more than 600 performances. It garnered four 2015 Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama League Award for Best Musical, three Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, and two Theatre World Awards.

The stage show runs for three weeks here before moving to Orange County. A MUST SEE.

The performance schedule for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm. Opening Night is Thursday, March 23, 2017 at 8pm.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is recommended for ages 6 and up. (Children under 5 will not be admitted to the theatre. All patrons must have a ticket, regardless of age.) Individual tickets for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS start at $35. Prices are subject to change without notice.

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Robin Menken